HOMILY for the Feast of Saint Benedict
It is tempting to think of monastic life, rapt in song and liturgical splendour, as angelic. And yet, it is vital to resist this. Man is a creature of the earth – that is what adam (in Genesis) means. And the monk is very much a creature of the earth. He works with his hands, and tills the earth. He lives with other people, and so is constantly reminded of his own human failings, and that of others! But above all, he is called to a life of humility, which comes from the word humus, meaning ‘earth’. And so, at the start of his monastic life, a man prostrates himself and clings to the earth, from which he is raised up as a new man, with a new name. His whole monastic life, in which he is schooled in humility, involves learning to be more truly a man of the earth, more fully human as Jesus Christ is. And for the monk, as for every one human person, there are two great temptations that we face.
The first is to seek to be angelic, and so, to think that we can ignore our bodily and biological limitations through the human will and the power of science so as to become übermensch. Hence, governments and societies challenge the natural law and ignore its limitations, they strive to re-define marriage and family, and to control human fertility, life and death. In this way, Man, like the first Adam grasps at what is properly God’s prerogative and gift. Closer to home, perhaps, we may judge others, and so usurp that divine right that God promises to give at the end to his faithful disciples. The second temptation, on the other hand, is to become like Cain, who behaved not so much like a rational human being but more like an irrational beast with irrepressible urges, powerless to control his pleasure-seeking desires, and giving in to passion, greed, and violence. I think at some level we can all recognize these inclinations towards the angelic or bestial in ourselves.
But we are called to be Man, and the monastic life arose to confront these dehumanizing temptations. Thus, the Rule of St Benedict called the monk, and every Christian too, I would say, to daily “battle under the Lord Christ, the true King”. Our weapons in this spiritual battle are twofold: humility and obedience.
With humility, Man knows his natural limitations, and his need of others, and above all, of God. Hence the monastic life orders one’s relationship with God and creation, so that, firstly, he offers worship to God, as is right and just. Then, he is also just to his fellow Man, through the service of education and of hospitality. And finally, he tends the earth, and cares for animals, showing justice to God’s good creation. Through this balanced and humane life outlined in the Rule the monk receives the gifts of wisdom and understanding which, as our first reading says, comes only from God. Secondly, the monk takes up another weapon: the discipline of a vowed life of obedience. And this is a most profoundly free and humanizing act. Because as Vatican II taught: Man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. So, in promising obedience for the love of God and the good of neighbour, the monk freely gives himself, following the pattern shown by Christ, the second Adam who humbled himself and was obedient even unto death. Thus the vowed monastic life becomes an act of love that unites us to Christ and divinizes us, but at the same time, it also makes us truly Human.
Such was the genuine humanism of Christian Europe, shaped by the monasteries of St Benedict, and enlightened by the Gospel. And it is clear that we have much to recover of this divine wisdom in our age. St Benedict and his monks and nuns, as such, have a vital role to play in the new evangelization of Europe as teachers and exemplars of the Christian life. May St Benedict, as patron of Europe, pray for us.